What to know about teen porn exposure

Far from watching a sultry magazine centerfold, today’s teens watch porn videos online with motion and sound, depicting every potential sex act imaginable. The Internet, which has been called the “triple A engine” because of its affordability, accessibility, and anonymity (Cooper, 1998), has radically changed the pornography industry; yet its effects on adolescent development are still being felt.

What do we know?

Exposure to pornography during adolescence is becoming the norm rather than the exception. For example, among a sample of American high school students, 56% had seen pornography in the previous year (Maheaux et al., 2021). In another study of young Americans in their late teens, 80.3% reported accessing pornography (Astle et al., 2020). Researchers studying pornography among Dutch teenagers (aged 13-17) noted: “Over 70% of the teenagers in our sample had ever used [sexually explicit internet material] initially, suggesting that it is now an integral part of adolescent development” (Vandenbosch & Peter, 2016, p.516).

How do you access pornography? Data from PornHub Insights revealed that 86% of site traffic comes from mobile devices. Additionally, using smartphones to access free pornography online is the most common way to view pornographic material (Herbenick et al., 2020; Ma & Shek, 2013). Therefore, pornographic material can be viewed anytime, anywhere via smartphones.

What is the problem?

Is the fact that 68.4% of adolescents said they have watched pornography at some point in their life a cause for concern (Wright et al., 2020)? There has been an ongoing debate for decades about the potential benefits and harms of pornography, but the bulk of the literature reveals that for adolescents, such exposure can be harmful (Rothman, 2021). For example, exposure to adolescent pornography has been linked to permissive sexual attitudes (Doornwaard et al., 2015), dominant or aggressive sexual behaviors (Wright et al., 2021), self-objectification and comparison (Maheux et al., 2021), and the development of sexual scripts influenced by pornography (Bryant, 2010).

Moreover, the average age of first exposure to pornography is between 11 and 12 years old (Kraus & Rosenberg, 2014; Rothman, 2021). 11-year-olds may or may not have a cognitive understanding of sex and healthy sexuality. For those who don’t, exposure to pornographic videos (especially videos of violent, forced, group, or rough sex acts) can be traumatic. These young people may not have a precise vision of sex compared to what they see actors playing in pornographic videos. They may not have a schema (or mental representation or category) that informs them that what they are seeing is unrealistic, unethical, illegal, or abnormal. Lack of healthy sexuality can make exposure to pornography distressing or disturbing as children try to process what they have seen (“Is this sex?”).

Additionally, adolescent brains go through critical periods of development and brain restructuring (pruning), and they may be more susceptible and sensitive to the impact of pornography than adults (Brown & Wisco, 2019). Indeed, the highly gratifying nature of pornography (exciting, arousing, pleasurable) can, for some teens, lead to loss of control over pornography use, compulsive use, and use that results in negative consequences. Indeed, among young adult male participants, 21.61% reported needing to increase the amount or intensify the nature of pornography to achieve the same level of arousal (suggesting tolerance; Jacobs et al., 2021)

Finally, conditioning one’s arousal response with online pornography can alter one’s experience of arousal with offline sexual partners (Barrett, 2010; Carnes, 2001; Doidge, 2007; Hilton, 2013). Indeed, some research suggests that problematic pornography use is associated with sexual dysfunction (Jacobs et al., 2021). Therefore, while not all young people who view pornography experience these negative consequences, there is potential for harm to some young people.

What can we do?

Adolescent brains are in a period of development in which the rational and problem-solving front part of the brain (prefrontal cortex) is not as connected as the emotional and rewarding part of the midbrain (limbic region) due to a process called myelination (Ashwell, 2019; Volkow and Boyle, 2018). As a result, adolescents have an increased sensitivity to rewarding behaviors (such as drug use, pornography, gambling, etc.) and often need help with rational, goal-oriented problem solving, which is not not happen as quickly as reward processing. .

Therefore, parents and guardians can provide assistance in helping teens navigate the highly rewarding online world. Here are some suggestions:

  1. In light of the average age of first exposure to pornography, talk with your child early about what they might encounter online and what they should do when they see it (“On the Internet, you can see things you don’t understand, like photos or videos of people with no clothes on, doing things you’ve never seen before. If you come across any of these photos or videos, come tell me and we can talk about it.”
  2. Provide education about pornography and the differences between pornography and healthy, consensual sexual activity (realism of pornography, actors, objectification of men and women, body enhancement, harms of violence, importance of consent).
  3. Use technological blocking and filtering systems to reduce the risk of exposure to unwanted pornography in your home or on your child’s device. Reduce the amount of time your child uses a device alone and make internet use a family activity instead.
  4. Talk to your child about sexuality, healthy sexual behaviors, sexual curiosity, and the values ​​you would like to instill in them when it comes to sex. Without these open, non-evaluative, safe, and non-judgmental dialogues, children will turn to other sources as their “teachers,” who may or may not be helpful and adaptive.

The landscape of child and adolescent development continues to change with the evolution of technology. It is important that the caregivers in their lives are informed, engaged and proactive in encouraging healthy development in our young people.

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